Smiles and tears: Earthbound earns its place among Super Nintendo's best
Before every NFL season back in the 2000s, CBS Sports did a feature on who the most underrated player in the NFL was. And every single year, Fred Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars won.
It got to the point where Taylor was so discussed for being underrated that no one who followed the NFL could really forget about him and he became acknowledged as a really good running back. This perception of Fragile Fred is quite similar to that of this week's game: the once and future king of cult classic games, Earthbound.
Earthbound is an role-playing game which Nintendo itself published for the Super Nintendo back in 1995 and received critical, if not popular, acclaim. And considering the murderers' row that is the SNES RPG library, Earthbound had to absolutely nail the fundamentals of an RPG to receive acclaim, much less its status as a classic. And on this count, it delivers in spades.
Following the model of the granddaddy of Japanese RPGs, Dragon Quest, Earthbound is a turn-based RPG with battles in first person. You'll get to use four characters: Ness, Paula, Jeff and Poo, all of whom are chosen to save the world from a malevolent, yet largely unknown entity known as Giygas, which will destroy the world in the future.
It's a really simple plot that works incredibly well and I don't want to spoil any of it here, but rest assured, by the time you get to the end, it will have been a very satisfying journey. You'll do everything you'd otherwise expect in an RPG, like solve puzzles, use magic, visit fantastic location and meet interesting characters.
Fundamentally, Earthbound stands with the Super Nintendo's best. On some systems, that would be good enough to be an indispensable RPG. But the SNES's graveyards are full of indispensable RPGs.
To be a cult classic, a game needs the "it factor," something that makes it stand apart. And here, Earthbound blows away pretty much all of its competition.
It eschews many of the genre's conventions of the day. Instead of a traditional fantasy setting, it takes place in the modern world. The protagonists fight with baseball bats, frying pans and ray guns instead of swords and spears. At points, the game doesn't take itself seriously at all.
There's a Blues Brothers-esque recurring band called the Runaway Five and a cult obsessed with the color blue called the Happy Happyists. The enemies have silly names like New Age Retro Hippie, Worthless Protoplasm and Shroooom! The major towns are Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside (Get it?!).
When people rave about Earthbound, its inherent charm and all-around weirdness -- in a good way -- are what sucked them in. It's a different experience from anything else on the system, and really, aside from the other games in the series, which sadly never officially made it to the United States, anything that exists at all.
As might be expected from a game that goes against the grain as much as Earthbound, it ended up largely forgotten in America until 1999, when out of nowhere, Ness was included in Super Smash Bros. as a hidden character. Gamers wanted to know about the game and, with that, Earthbound entered the realm of cult classic. Its prices on the secondary market climbed into the stratosphere despite its not being especially rare.
Until very recently, Earthbound held the distinction of being the game for which I paid the most. It also began appearing on many "underrated gems" lists and even on the "best SNES games" lists. Its profile was raised to the point where everyone who was interested in the SNES knew about it, even if they couldn't afford it. So Earthbound was no longer underrated. But it never became overrated, either. It earned its proper place among the greats of the system and is unlikely to ever fall from that spot.
So, it's recommendation time.
If you want the Earthbound cart, you're going to be out a good chunk of change, most certainly in the triple digits somewhere.
But, in a move that many thought would never happen for various reasons, this past summer, Nintendo released Earthbound on the Wii U (NOT the Wii) Virtual Console. It's $10.
Normally I'd put some qualifications on a recommendation, like "if you're a fan of the genre," or "if you want to relive your childhood." This one has no conditions. Don't like RPGs? Doesn't matter. You'll like Earthbound. Have a predilection against older games? Doesn't matter. You'll like Earthbound.
So go download it now. Because just reading this column and not playing the game, you'll never comprehend the true form of Earthbound's greatness.